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A Matter Of Life & Death is (Guy) Manning's sixth release in as many years.  How many progressive bands can boast such an output these days?

Eager as everybody should be to spin the disc as soon as it is in their possession, it is worth revisiting Manning's 1999 release, Tall Stories For Small Children.  'Pourquoi?' you may ask.  Well, A Matter Of Life & Death is a concept album based on a character, Abel Mann, who first came to light on Tall Stories where Abel was left 'writing his diary'.  Contemplative of suicide (did he jump from the ledge or just consider it??), the new album explores the tragic character's thoughts through his 'journal'.

Main vocals, in distinctive Anderson-like style, along with all manner of instrumentation are down to the multi-talented Guy Manning, who is ably assisted by a host of familiar names including Laura Fowles (sax, vocals), Gareth Harwood (electric guitars, vocals), Rick Ashton (bass, vocals), John Tipping (drums), Ian Fairbairn (fiddle), Neil Harris (modal piano, melodica, percussion, vocals), Tim Moon (cello) and Andy Tillison (keyboards).

Stating the obvious, the album has the usual and now classic Manning sound, but like all Guy's releases, this has something 'extra' over and above the previous album.  What that 'extra something' IS, is difficult to put into words.  Listen to it and you will know what I mean.  Yes, there's that hint of Tull but many other styles, sounds and feelings are also there, from the fiddle of The Levellers to the strong sense of Camel particularly with regard to keyboard pieces.  I don't know about you but this combination gets a large in my book.

The contrasting (backing) vocals' response to the main vocal is something rarely heard in prog in the past couple of decades.  Genesis used it often in the 70's to depict different characters in a song, usually in a comical way, but Manning uses the arrangement in more of a sense of a Shakespearian play where the elements (air, water etc.) have a voice (a sort of whisper on a wind).

Guy has omitted the almost-obligatory 20 minute 'epic' (that doesn't mean that there aren't any long-ish tracks), which is good as A Matter Of Life & Death has no need of one. Instant gratification is delivered by the opening track, The Dream, dangerously setting high expectations for the album.  Dangerous because on first listen, the remaining tracks, whilst good, failed to grab me in the same manner.  A few replays later and other tracks begin to come to the fore and having now heard it 10+ times I can confirm that every track is a winner.  How I missed this fact the first time, God only knows, but it proves the worthiness of perseverance and the old adage that great albums get better on every listen.

The package artwork is of an equally high standard and is continued throughout the booklet.  I bet ProgRock Records are well pleased that they managed to add Manning to their list of artistes.  Highly recommended.

Jem Jedrzejewski